Weapon of Choice: 2007 Alphasmart 3000. She throbs with the anticipation of your touch!
Sometimes you’ll find fun silk screening easter eggs on the internal circuit boards in a device – the Alphasmart 3000 has this one!
There are few things as satisfying as being surprised by a machine that you’d previously dismissed, and I must say that the AlphaSmart 3000 is one such case. It took a little work to get it to the point where I really started to like it, but not very difficult work and the materials didn’t cost much. The thing is, you can either accept the limitations and poor design choices of a machine or you can do something creative about it and make it much better. It’s been a little over 5 months since Joe sent that groovy care package full of vintage writing slabtops, which included this Alphasmart 3000, and since I’ve been playing around with them during that time I figured I’d start the actual reviews with this one.
I’ll be straight-up – I kinda hated this slabtop at first. It was a nasty, clanky loud typing experience compared to all of the other slabtops I have, and it required some modification to tame that sound to an acceptable level. To do that, I turned to the same method that I use on overly clanky, loud typewriters: stuff that sucker full of felt soundproofing. Simple, but it helps a lot, and there is plenty of spare room inside the AS3000 for that felt to go. (That’s part of the original aural problem, TBH). The AS3k also is put together with regular phillips head screws, and is quite easy to get apart.
I used some thick yellow craft felt – I laid it down against the shell and traced out where to cut.
The most recent datestamp I found on the machine is 2007 on the IRDA assembly. Earliest datecode was 2002, and most of the major component assemblies were made in 2003. Alphasmart seems to have just assembled pre-made component assemblies as orders came in.
If you separate the keyboard from the main board, take care to undo the ribbon cables correctly. Don’t just yank ’em out of the sockets!
Well, this one you can yank out of the pin header, separating the screen assembly from the main board.
Ooh, mystery jumper switches. I wonder what they do.
Once properly felted, I turned to improving the machine with an internal screen backlight on the cheap. I tried to install a short strip of 3v battery-powered LED lights inside, tapping the internal battery to power them. The idea was that the lights inside would cause the semi-transparent case to glow in a nice green ambient light which would allow me to see the screen in the dark. This all did in fact work great, except for the seeing the screen in the dark part, which failed miserably. Why? Well, as near as I can tell, it’s because of the polarizing layer on the passive LCD screen. When light from inside the case leaks onto the screen, it just gets polarized to solid black, which means I had a pretty green glowing case and a black screen. *Sigh* well, it was worth a shot.
A few weeks ago while thrifting, I found a new-in-box clip on rechargeable book lamp for $3 that really fits the screen lighting mission well. The clip is articulated, wide and strong, which allows it to clip onto the somewhat fat, rounded top of the AS3k and grip it tightly. The gooseneck led lamp extends far enough that it shines the light on the keyboard and screen in positions that fully light the work area and screen without annoying glare reflecting off of the screen. It recharges from USB and a charge can last up to 12 hours, meaning it has a lifespan worthy of the power-sipping Alphasmart, and you can type all night long if you wanted to. It’s also pretty lightweight, adding negligable weight to the machine and not throwing its balance off at all.
So I uninstalled all that internal lighting and put it in one of my typewriter cases instead, where it works like a charm, and while the backlighting experiment failed on this AS3000, the soundproofing job did work well, and I find this machine to be a pretty good writing slabtop now. This is not to say that the keyboard is great now (it isn’t – it’s still somewhat stiff-feeling and mushy), but the sound is way better and the touch is more *cushioned* with the felt against the back of the keyboard. The AS3k uses cheap rubber dome “suction” keyswitches compared to the Neo and Dana’s laptop-style scissor switches. There is a keyboard replacement kit available for $30 (currently out of stock) that allows you to use your own choice of mechanical switches, and you can even do a DIY build of this keyboard, as the circuit board files are freely available.
Now I’ve installed some felt on the inside of the AlphaSmart 3000’s shell, and it does feel a bit nicer and is certainly quieter than before. I note the memory stayed intact for the 45 minutes that I had the thing apart with the batteries out – this is because the 3000 has an internal coin cell battery to keep its memory intact. To replace it, you have to open up the machine, but since it’s a simple coin cell in a holder, it is trivial to do. If you change the CR2032 coin cell battery, the machine *will* reset and you’ll lose your data, even if you still have main batteries installed, so be sure to send all your text from all 8 banks of the AS3k to your main computer before doing so. They’ll be wiped clean.
In all other ways, this machine is basically identical to a Neo. Less memory, but I haven’t run into that limitation yet. I like it less than my Neo, but it’s also more expendable than my Neo, so I see myself taking this slabtop to dangerous places where a machine might get broken or swiped. I’ve been using it more than my Neo lately, but that might be because I’ve been wanting to get time with it under my belt.
It’s not time that I’ve hated, though. I have been having good fun with this machine – trying some improvements that worked and some that haven’t, and having put work and care into this AS3000, I find I like it. It gets very high marks for its connectivity and battery life, good marks for its screen and sub-par marks for its keyboard and sound acoustics – with a caveat that this can be improved with a little craftiness. The AS3k is likely the best writing slab you can get for under $20 on eBay consistently, as Neos are gettin’ to be about twice that these days.
My Opinion/Rating of this Slabtop:
Cost: A – ~$20
Availability: A – Common
Connectivity: A – USB A/B cable, Transfers text directly to open document on host computer. You can speed up the transfer of text to your computer by accessing the speed menu: <option><cmd><s>.
Compatibility as ASCII TXT: A – 100%
Keyboard Normalness: A – software switchable to different layouts like Dvorak and right/left hand only.
Keyboard Touch: D – Can be aurally improved with soundproofing. Can be replaced with mechanical switches
Battery Life: A – Good quality AA alkaline batteries will power the AS3k for 700+ hours. When the AS3k is turned off, no power from the batteries is used.
Battery Specs: 3 AA batteries of the same type (alkaline, carbon, or rechargeable)
O/S Ease of Use: A – not much O/S to worry about.
O/S Type: Proprietary Alphasmart,
Memory: 100 pages of text, 8 file banks.
Screen Size: 5 3/4″ wide by 1 1/8″ tall – 40 characters wide by 4 lines tall,
Screen Readability: A,
Screen/Font Customization: Basically none.
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It’s been a while since I used my AlphaSmart, but I recall disliking the key feel and also being frustrated by its way of navigating around the text. Still, it has potential, and you’ve revealed some of it here.
Ha, I just added the Ebay auction widget to the post and noted a lot of TEN (10) AS3k’s going for $123, shipping included. That’s $12.30 a pop, with free shipping, currently. Great opportunity to outfit a writing cafe’ or something. It’s a neat thing to hack on and use for the price. :D
Creative! That PCB was just waiting for you!
I like the translucent case, but that hasn’t been enough to get me to buy one, even at around the $20 mark. (It wasn’t long ago you could get any of the AlphaSmarts for $25 or less, shipped. The word is out about the Neo2’s being the best in class.) The felt was brilliant (love your color selection), and the book light is an easy mod. Looking forward to more slabtop reviews.
What is the brand of that book lamp?
it’s this one: